The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy
by Mackenzi Lee
“I do not want easy or small or uncomplicated. I want my life to be messy and ugly and wicked and wild, and I want to feel it all.”
Published Oct. 2, 2018 by Katherine Tegen Books
Genre: YA historical fiction
Date finished: Oct. 2, 2018
Felicity Montague is through with pretending she prefers society parties to books about bone setting—or that she’s not smarter than most people she knows, or that she cares about anything more than her dream of becoming a doctor.
A year after an accidentally whirlwind tour of Europe, which she spent evading highwaymen and pirates with her brother Monty, Felicity has returned to England with two goals in mind—avoid the marriage proposal of Callum Doyle, a lovestruck suitor from Edinburgh; and enroll in medical school. However, her intellect and passion will never be enough in the eyes of the administrators, who see men as the sole guardians of science.
But then a small window of hope opens. Doctor Alexander Platt, an eccentric physician that Felicity idolizes, is looking for research assistants, and Felicity is sure that someone as forward thinking as her hero would be willing to take her on. However, Platt is in Germany, preparing to wed Felicity’s estranged childhood friend Johanna. Not only is Felicity reluctant to opening old wounds, she also has no money to make the trip.
Luckily, a mysterious young woman is willing to pay Felicity’s way, so long as she’s allowed to travel with Felicity disguised as her maid. In spite of her suspicions, Felicity agrees, but once the girl’s true motives are revealed, Felicity becomes part of a perilous quest that will lead her from the German countryside to the promenades of Zurich to secrets lurking beneath the Atlantic.
My thoughts (spoiler free)
Note: this review is not spoiler free for The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue
I knew I was going to like this book. After how much I loved Gentleman’s Guide and everything else I’ve read by Mackenzi Lee, this was a given. My expectations were astronomically high, but I thought there was no way I could love it more than Gentleman’s Guide. I think I may have been proven wrong.
And, zounds, I was not prepared for how this book would seize me with both hands, shake me up, and leave me laughing through tears with my heart ready to burst.
This book felt like a balm for every time I’ve felt like I wasn’t good enough to succeed or make my mark in a world dominated by men. It smoothed out the parts of my soul hardened by telling myself I’m not enough. It was a tribute to the women who paved the way and the women who still fight today to exist and take up space. In a world where being a woman with a voice sometimes feels like an open invitation for all the toughest lashes the world can offer, this book told me that it’s okay to feel weak and powerless and trodden down, as long as I keep fighting for myself and all other women. This book made me feel like I could take on the world and win. It made me want to celebrate being a woman, complex and powerful and shaped by all the ones who came before me and made it possible for me to be proud all of these things.
And somehow it did all of that in less than 500 pages.
“You deserve to be here. You deserve to exist. You deserve to take up space in this world of men.”
The story follows Felicity Montague, one of the main characters in Gentleman’s Guide, about a year after the events of that book. Though she has her heart set on becoming a doctor, the fact that she’s a woman bars her from enrolling in any medical schools. Felicity does not give up easy, though, and she begins her quest to achieve her dream no matter the cost.
Ah, Felicity. Stubborn, prickly, strong, clever, angry, opinionated Felicity. Again, I already loved this character thanks to Gentleman’s Guide, but this book made me love her 500x more. This was basically me every time Felicity did anything:
This type of historical badass girl, a girl slightly out of her time but doing everything she can to make her own place in the world, has always been a favorite of mine (ever since Felicity Merriman of American Girl – I’m sensing a theme here).
Despite that, the book veers away from one of my least favorite tropes in this time of story, in which said historical badass girl puts down other girls who fit more neatly into the expected gender roles of the time. It’s just another version of the “not like other girls” trope, acting superior for rejecting femininity. And although Felicity might start out thinking along these lines, she grows to recognize her prejudices. We even have a major plot point that involves female characters using something traditionally feminine (their petticoats) as a weapon of sorts. And I love it.
Not only that, but Felicity refuses to compromise her dreams and her character, even when she’s told it’s the only way she can exist and succeed in this world. Unfortunately, these are still things that women are told today: play by the rules set by the patriarchy and you might achieve at least a quarter of what you hope for. But Felicity shows us that we don’t need permission or validation from men to be who we want to be.
Plus! She’s aromantic asexual and her story does not revolve around finding romantic love! As long as she has her friends and family around her she can be happy!
In addition to Felicity, we have a whole cast of amazing female characters, in particular Sim and Johanna, who I won’t say much about because of spoilers. But these characters are amazing. And, of course, the return of some old favorites, like Monty and Percy (HOORAY!) and Scipio and his crew!
The writing has the same electric, quick cleverness as in Gentleman’s Guide, but its voice is uniquely Felicity’s. The strength of Mackenzi Lee’s writing truly comes through, since she’s able to write two such incredible books in different voices. It’s hard to beat the humor of Gentleman’s Guide, but this book was still hilarious. There were scenes were I was giggling out loud or groaning in second-hand embarrassment.
This book manages to tell an interesting and clever story about the situation of women in the 1700s, in addition to touching on subjects of European colonialism, race, the ways that medical institutions profit from poverty, and so much more. Mackenzi Lee does not simplify history for us – she presents it to us in all its complexities and intersectionalities.
Most importantly, though, this book showed how far we still have to go in terms of opportunities and rights for women. Some of the scenes in which men explain to Felicity why her dreams are unrealistic felt painfully familiar, reminding me that, though this book takes place centuries in the past, it’s grounded in the reality of women’s struggles today. However, Felicity shows us that when women work together and support each other, we are powerful and unstoppable, and we do not need to justify the space we take up in this world.
“Everyone has heard stories of women like us—cautionary tales, morality plays, warnings of what will befall you if you are a girl too wild for the world, a girl who asks too many questions or wants too much. If you set off into the world alone.
Everyone has heard stories of women like us, and now we will make more of them.”
I had the amazing opportunity to meet Mackenzi Lee the day after I read this book, which meant I was actually able to tell her (some of) how much this book meant to me. I wish I could have expressed everything I said in this nearly 1.5k word review to her in the few minutes that we spoke, but I think I was able to get across at least some of my feelings. She was so incredibly sweet! Plus, I asked her to write one of my favorite funny lines from the book, and she did:
Anyway, it was such a wonderful experience and I’m so happy that I got to tell her how special this book was to me! I could probably talk about it for another couple thousand words, to be honest, but I’ll leave it with this: please read this book.